By: Chuck Hilston
It was January 24, 2012. On this fateful day, there was a signing that sent shockwaves across
Major League Baseball. In a mega deal, the Detroit Tigers reached into their deep pockets and got the
second biggest price of the free agent season. Of course, upon signing one of the best hitters in the
league in Prince Fielder, the next logical step seemed obvious. Roll through the American League
Central, and have everyone home on their couches watching them celebrate in October. But, it hasn’t
quite happened that way. In one of the more bizarre storylines of this baseball season, the team that
many called unbeatable at the beginning of the year has looked entirely mortal, tripping out of the gate
at a mediocre 28-32, and they should consider themselves fortunate to be in the Central, where they are
only 6 games back of the Indians and White Sox. But what happened?
Well, for one thing, this isn’t the Tigers lineup that was available last year. As much as people
want to point to how well Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are hitting, that still isn’t really comparing
to what they had last year, especially down the stretch with Cabrera nearly achieving a triple crown,
Jhonny Peralta having an All-Star season and Victor Martinez providing a lethal .330 batting average in
the number 9 spot.
Also, you have to look at the fact that there is no way that Justin Verlander and Jose Valverde
could have seasons quite like the ones they had last year. They were bound to cool off a little. However,
while both of them have faltered a little bit, the Tigers set-up guys and the expected 2 nd and 3rd starters
in their rotation in Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have ERAs over 5.00.
I think the biggest factor affecting the Tigers last year was the fact that when things went right,
they really went RIGHT. The Tigers run differential for last season was nothing mind-blowing, at only
+76, which was 6th in the AL. However, the Tigers were able to pull out games when it mattered.
Overall, even with Verlander, Valverde, Cabrera, and Victor doing their thing, they were only expected
to win 89 games, and they ended up winning 95, good for the largest win differential over expected wins
of anyone in the league.
In layman’s terms, what this means is that they overachieved, and essentially caught lucky
breaks at certain times when they were needed. The numbers back that up too, as their 29-17 record in
one run games was the best in baseball. This year, they’ve had sort of the opposite effect. Not only have
they posted an overall losing record in one-run games, but they just have had inopportune things
happen throughout the first few months of the season (blown leads, leaving bases loaded, etc.)
I don’t think there should be any cause for panic though. While they appear to be somewhat
like “Paper Tigers” (see what I did there?) compared to the team they were last year, they certainly
aren’t as bad as their record and performance have displayed thus far. You have to remember, this
team is only six games out of first right now. While I don’t see them achieving last year’s level of
success, it’s likely that they will improve and be in the thick of a division race that sees three teams
headed for a win total in the 80s (Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago). Who will actually win the pennant will
depend on timely hitting, a reliable bullpen, and getting those lucky bounces.